High 'Standards'

For a full-length debut, self-recorded and produced, the Offbeats’ Standards sounds impressively professional and mature. That’s not so surprising when you consider that, in some ways, this local act has spent the past seven years completing it. As the title might imply, the album is a collection of previously released material, a sort of greatest-hits compilation, though reworked and rerecorded. The Offbeats have released several EPs over the years, recorded and produced by friends and professionals, but lead singer and second guitarist Bryan Foster says the band continually left the studio disappointed in the final product.

“We always came out feeling like it never sounded like us,” Foster said. “It was never what we felt like it was when we had that live vibe. We’d never get that feeling.”

The problem, Foster said, was the limited amount of studio time the band could afford and the fact that many of the past producers were just working on the album as a favor and unable to devote enough energy and resources to bring the project up to the band’s own expectations.

“They don’t have the most time to spend on it,” Foster said. “It’s not really their priority.”

Perhaps as a consequence, the end results were never as polished as the band would have liked.

“The albums always seemed flat,” Foster said, “`there were` no dynamics.”

Recording the album themselves in their own rehearsal space, lead guitarist and backup vocalist Eric Romasanta said, gave the band an unlimited amount of time to spend on the album. Time to rework arrangements, or even scrap and rerecord track takes they weren’t happy with.

“We were able to get the parts arranged the way we wanted and tweak some of the songs,” Romasanta said. “`Recording ourselves` allowed us more freedom to sort of eff around.”

All that effing around pays off. While the band’s production work tends more toward Steve Albini’s straight recording than Brian Wilson’s OCD symphonies, the album is sharp and clean, perfect for the Offbeats’ sound — a combination of snarling post-punk attacks and poppy accessibility — think the Libertines with more control, or Boris with more restraint — and small touches (Foster’s multi-channel solo duet on “Bohemian Slang,” to the few feedback-entropy endnotes) give Standards a greater depth and variety. The Offbeats obviously picked up a few tricks in their studio visits.

“Over the last two years,” Foster said, “we’ve become more focused on the technical aspect of things, spending more time on the songs, trying to keep them from all sounding the same.”

Keeping things fresh can be a difficult task when you’re recording an album full of songs you’ve played countless times over several years. Part of the purpose for recording a definitive version of these songs , Foster said, was to “kind of get past those and move on.”

Despite his familiarity with the material here, Foster seems bored in only two instances: Describing with nonchalance what seems to be some pretty freaky sexual situations on the Wire-y “How Come Everybody …?” (exactly the burnt-out tone the song calls for; Foster’s snotty yelping has a limited range but he characterizes tracks with vocal tics like a champ) before apparently switching teams, and (probably unintentionally) on “Smoking Gun,” the album’s oldest track, which ends Standards on a relatively weak note. Foster’s greatly improved as a songwriter between then and now.

Foster and Romasanta started the band seven years ago when they were still in high school. The line-up has changed over the years, settling on the current incarnation, with Colin and Sean Foster, Bryan’s younger brothers, trading off duties on drums and bass. (Drummer Mike Griffin, no longer with the band, kept time on most of the album’s tracks.) Sean also plays the keyboard on a few songs.

The keys are a new addition to the Offbeats sound, a potential threat to the band’s aggressive tendencies. The smattering of light-mixed keys on Standards never really kills the guitar buzz — Romasanta and Foster’s guitars often sound like they’re picked with rusty razor blades. And, though the organ work and complementary accoustic strumming give “Carolina, Caroline” a catchy appeal and genuine hit potential, the barking vocals and “dollar whore” jab save the track from emo-balladry. The sound on many songs is too full and hooky for the DIY straight-edge, but the poppiest augmentations are more subtle than multi-layered “Piano Man”-ing — hand claps, rattles, and a musical playfulness closer to late-’70s sarcasm than hardcore earnesty. (Check out the “Surf City” vibe on “Switchblade,” a song that seems to be begging a friend to dispose of a murder weapon. )

Though they work to keep an “edge” to their compositions, the Offbeats aren’t constantly trying to be abrasive or confrontational.

“We don’t strive for that,” Foster said, “You don’t always gotta be pouting with your fists clenched.”

While the album does indeed contain plenty of fist-clenching and pouty-facing, the fuller production perfectly complements the band’s sound, too deep and complex to be faithfully pigeon-holed in the punk genre, for one of the year’s better releases, local or otherwise. Not surprisingly, the band agrees.

“It’s the best we’ve ever done,” Romasanta said. “It’s what we sound like, or what we hope to sound like. I’m really happy.”

The Offbeats say they’ve achieved their main goal in recording the album — to make a record that sounds like their live show, a faithful recreation for longtime listeners and a fair represenation for Offbeats new comers.

“I hope that anyone who’s been listening to us for a long time will hear the album and say, “This sounds like the Offbeats,” Foster said. “That’d be nice … I’d like that.”
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